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China-Japan Friction: How Can India Respond?

Paper No. 5633                                     Dated 14-Jan-2014

By D.S. Rajan

Current trends make clear that tensions between China and Japan on political and strategic issues are increasing day by day.

It is natural that Asia-Pacific nations, which have a big stake in guaranteeing regional stability and prosperity, are coming under compulsions to shape their responses to the developing situation. For that purpose, they are keeping a close watch on indicators of the future course of bilateral ties between the two Asian economic giants.

It goes without saying that China-Japan political relations remain frosty mainly due to the ownership dispute over islands, called Diaoyu by Beijing and Senkaku by Tokyo. It would be important not to ignore veteran leader Deng Xiaoping’s position that the territorial problem could be left to the future generations in the two countries for resolution. However, the issue came into the limelight in China in mid-2009, a period that saw China enforcing a foreign policy course with a revised strategic focus, giving priority to protecting what it calls its ‘core interests’ – Tibet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, strategic resources and trade routes. The result has been a new assertiveness based on the ‘sovereignty’ factor in China’s external behavior. With respect to the disputed islands, Beijing, from this period, began emphasising that China was not a party to the treaty on the island group, approved by the post-World War II allied powers.

Two factors can be credited for the post-2009 accentuation in China’s stand on the disputed islands. The first concerns the resource factor – on the basis of increasingly available estimates, Beijing started to realise that the islands have high potential for energy deposits and that sovereignty over them would enable it to gain base lines for China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), legitimising its exploitation of resources. The second factor is strategic, which forces China to become aggressive on the islands issue – the US position that the disputed islands are being governed by the 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty which allows Washington to intervene in the event of any external threat to the islands.

Three steps taken of late by China in the East China Sea theatre need to be understood in a strategic context:

• Beijing’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea
• Recurring entry by Chinese ships into territorial waters in East China Sea claimed by Japan
• China’s announcement of new fishing restrictions in the South China Sea.

Japan also has made moves that have invited Chinese wrath. They include:

• Tokyo’s ‘nationalisation’ of three of the disputed islands through purchase from their private owner
• Japan’s adoption of a new 10-year Defense Strategy based on ‘pro-active pacifism’ aimed at strengthening the country’s defense capabilities, particularly in the maritime sector
• Prime Minister Abe’s visit ( first such one to be made by a Japanese Prime Minister since 2006) to Yasukuni shrine that includes the remains of  'World War II criminals"
• Holding of a drill close to the disputed islands by Japanese paratroopers in the presence of Japanese Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera, with defending and retaking of remote islands as designed goals
• Proposed introduction of draft laws by the Japanese government in late January 2014 to a national referendum on constitutional revision seeking to gradually lift the existing restrictions on the country’s military build-up.

Symbolic of the current political stand-off between Beijing and Tokyo is China’s official rejection of the Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s call to hold an official summit meeting with Chinese (and South Korean) leaders , for ‘explaining directly to them’ his visit to the Yasukuni shrine. The undiminished Chinese strategic mistrust of Japan as well as the US is well reflected in the following words of a China expert: “Tokyo’s changing security and foreign policies will bring more complexities and uncertainties to the relationships between China, Japan and the United States”- Sun Cheng, Professor of Japanese Studies, China University of Political Science and Law).

The Japanese emperor recently visited India; Prime Minister Abe will be the special guest at the Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi on 26 January 2014. India-Japan relations in various spheres including security are bound to progress further. But Chinese suspicions of this bilateral relationship are getting demonstrated in warnings in the Chinese media that India’s strategic cooperation with Japan “…can only bring trouble to India. There may be some tacit understanding in the strategic cooperation between India and Japan, given the long-lasting Diaoyu island dispute and China-India border confrontation. Overheated strategic cooperation with the Abe administration can only bring trouble to India and threaten its relationships with the relevant East Asian countries.” (Global Times, 30 May 2013). This being so, at a time when Beijing-Tokyo relations have soured with no immediate chances of recovery, it will be in India’s interests to not appear as ganging up with China against Japan or with Japan against China. New Delhi’s policy towards Beijing and Tokyo needs to be well-calibrated and balanced. India seems to be aware of the need. The fact that India has not taken sides on the Senkaku issue so far is evidence of this.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies. The article originally appeared in the Institute of Policy and Conflict Studies website on 13.1.2014 , accessible at http://www.ipcs.org/article/india/middle-kingdom-china-japan-friction-ho.... Email:director.c3s@gmail.com

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